Abdullah Ibrahim, South African Jazz Titan, Returns to Los Angeles

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The Jazz Epistles, South Africa’s first black jazz group, took Cape Town by storm in the late 1950’s with their debut record Jazz Epistle Verse 1. Inspired by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the groundbreaking ensemble played modern jazz with a distinctly African twist. The septet featured the young Hugh Masekela on trumpet as well as the pianist Dollar Brand, who would later change his name to Abdullah Ibrahim. The Jazz Epistles were short-lived, breaking up shortly after their first and only album. Masekela and Ibrahim would both suffer exile during apartheid rule in the 1960’s, but go on to illustrious and amazing careers.

Ibrahim moved from South Africa to Europe in 1962. A turning point in his career came in February 1963, when Ibrahim’s wife-to-be, Sathima Bea Benjamin, convinced Duke Ellington, then performing in Zurich on tour, to come hear Ibrahim at Zurich’s Africana Club. That meeting led to a recording date for Reprise Records and the album Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio. Though long out of print, the album is still available online, even in the original mono vinyl. Over his almost seven-decade long career, Ibrahim has recorded many albums for many different labels in many different countries—over 70 albums and counting.

Photo courtesy of Abdullah Ibrahim/UCLA CAP (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

With Masekela’s recent passing, UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance will celebrate the Jazz Epistles with a tribute program by the now-legendary Abdullah Ibrahim and his South African-based group Ekaya on Saturday, March 3. I’m very excited to see Ibrahim on the calendar, as he rarely comes to Los Angeles. The Royce Hall show will revisit the original compositions (with new arrangements) by the seminal South African jazz group along with Ibrahim’s own classics. Freddie Hendrix will take the trumpet chair.

Listening to Jazz Epistle Verse 1, you hear in Ibrahim’s early playing the influence of forward-thinking American jazz pianists like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.  By contrast, Ibrahim’s later solo albums and concerts tend to be quieter and more cerebral, like musical meditations. I started listening to his music back in the late 1960’s when he was still known as Dollar Brand. Some of my personal favorites include Echoes from Africa (1979), Autobiography (1978), and, perhaps most significantly, 1974’s Mannenburg – Is Where It’s Happening (renamed in the U.S. as Cape Town Fringe).

Ibrahim recorded Mannenberg – Is Where It’s Happening in 1974 during one of his return visits to South Africa. The record was produced by Rashid Vally, who ran the Kohinoor Store in Johannesburg. (During my tenure as music director of KCRW (1979-1991), we produced two African shows and used to get vinyl records from the Kohinoor Store. Their memorable slogan read, “Where We Sell Records Like Cornflakes”). Mannenberg refers to the township of Manenberg in Cape Town, to which many black and Coloured (mixed-race) South Africans were sent after being forcibly evicted from their homes. The song “Mannenberg” became a national anthem during the 70’s and 80’s struggle against apartheid.

I’ve seen Abdullah Ibrahim perform several times, including at Hop Singh’s in Venice and at Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood. On one visit years ago, owner Catalina Popescu dragged a reluctant and sleepy Ibrahim to the station for an interview on “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” and we wound up having an enjoyable chat. Ibrahim is a tall and imposing man with a black belt in karate, but speaks in a soft and gentle voice that belies his physical presence. I look forward to seeing him in concert again after many years. Click here for tickets and more information on the upcoming UCLA show. See you there!

Check out this track from Jazz Epistle, Verse 1:

Banner image of Abdullah Ibrahim courtesy of the artist/UCLA CAP